France braces for COVID shutdown; Merkel warns of ‘difficult winter’

Second COVID-19 wave sends France back into national lockdown

U.K. rejects national lockdown

French doctors are expressing relief and business owners despair as France prepares to shut down for a month to try to put the brakes on a fast-moving fall coronavirus outbreak.

On Wednesday, French president Emmanuel Marcon announced a four-week lockdown, the same day as Chancellor Angela Merkel did for her nation of Germany.

The new lockdown is gentler than the one the French government ordered in the spring, but restaurants and other non-essential businesses have been ordered to close their doors in one of the world’s biggest economies.

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French schools will stay open this time, to reduce learning gaps and allow parents to keep working. Farmer' markets, parks and factories can also continue operating, officials said.

French lawmakers are voting Thursday on the new restrictions announced by Macron, which are set to go into effect at midnight. The lower house of parliament is dominated by Macron’s centrist party, so approval is virtually guaranteed. The prime minister plans to lay out details of the virus-fighting plan Thursday evening.

Hans Kluge, the regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO), referred to the surge of coronavirus cases in Europe as a "very serious situation."

Merkel spoke Thursday in Parliament a day after she and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed upon far-reaching restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, including the closure of bars and restaurants, limits on social contacts and bans on concerts and other public events.

Germany’s disease control agency said local health authorities reported 16,774 new positive tests for COVID-19 in the past day, pushing the country’s total since the start of the outbreak close to half a million. The Robert Koch Institute also recorded 89 additional deaths, taking the country’s total to 10,272. That is still one-fourth the death toll in Britain.

Merkel told lawmakers that Germany is in a “dramatic situation” as it goes into winter, which she said would be “four long, difficult months. But it will end.”

The long-time German leader said authorities had no choice but to drastically reduce social contacts as three-quarters of infections in Germany now can’t be traced be traced anymore.

“If we wait until the ICUs are full, then it will be too late,” she said.

Merkel said democratic debate about the virus restrictions was important, but blasted some critics who have claimed the German government is exaggerating the threat of the virus.

“Lies and disinformation, conspiracies and hatred damage not just the debate but also the battle against the virus,” she said. “It’s not just democratic debate that depends on our relationship to facts and information, human lives depend on it.”

Germany has begun taking in COVID-19 patients from neighboring countries like it did during the height of the pandemic’s first wave in the spring.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that two patients from the Netherlands and two from Belgium have been transferred to hospitals in western Germany in recent days.

In the spring, Germany took in 232 patients requiring intensive care from France, Italy and the Netherlands.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has stressed that the country remains ready to help allies again, including through a new European coordination office that’s received $258 million in funding.

Elsewhere in Europe:

  • Poland has registered another sharp spike in confirmed coronavirus cases and reported a new daily record of over 20,100. The new cases reported Thursday, an increase from almost 19,000 reported a day earlier,
  • The British government is insisting that a national lockdown would not be the right approach to deal with the resurgence of the coronavirus even as other countries in Europe are choosing variations of that route. Britain’s Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said it is “right we try everything in our powers to avoid a blanket national lockdown.”
  • The number of patients in Belgian hospitals is now higher than during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis. The latest figures showed that 5,924 patients were in hospital, surpassing the previous April 6 record of 5,759. The figures by the Sciensano center underscored the seriousness of the situation, which already pushed authorities to reinforce measures which they had relaxed only a month ago.
  • As more of Spain’s 17 regions apply border travel restrictions, the Spanish government is seeking parliamentary approval to extend the country’s newly declared state of emergency to rein in resurging coronavirus infections until May. Spain last week became the first European country to surpass 1 million officially recorded COVID-19 cases, though authorities say the true figure could be three times higher. The death toll is at least 35,000.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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